Saving traditions

Guy Singleton

A long running project of the indigenous Ngalia people of Western Australia has adapted a wide variety of technologies in their fight to preserve their traditional knowledge and culture.

Back in the 1980s, the indigenous Ngalia people of Western Australia started their own community research project devoted to the ‘preservation of significant Aboriginal sites…to rejuvenate, restore and protect all good aspects of traditional Ngalia culture and language…’ The initiative was largely in response to damage caused by increased mineral mining on Ngalia land.

From very early in the project, the community recognized the value of using ICT to help preserve their culture. They began with genealogical archiving as family records are important in Australian law when indigenous people want to lay legal claim to their traditional lands. However, most of the, ‘family tree’ archiving software available at the time was based on European family systems and was not compatible with the structure of Ngalia families. For example, the software was not designed for men with multiple wives or other societal differences found in traditional Ngalia life. Software problems such as these made the already complex transition from an oral to a text medium even more difficult for the community.
But for the Ngalia people, the greatest challenge in using ICT in their preservation effort was finding people with the required technical expertise. Only a small group of individuals in the community had these skills and the Ngalia were reluctant to involve external ‘expert’ assistance, fearing that outside help would reduce the community owned feel of the project.
Although only a few people had in the community had the necessary skills, they managed to achieve a lot.By 2003 they had generated vast volumes of cultural research material, including a full Ngalia language dictionary and thesaurus, digital song archives, complex databases of genealogy records and maps of culturally significant resources by using GPS receivers to plot locations such as waterholes, rock formations and rivers. Despite such success, it became obvious to the community leaders that it was only this very small group of individuals who were driving most of the progress. Wider interest in the project was essential for the success of future initiatives.


In early 2006, the Ngalia community expanded their work to a youth participatory video project, to build on the interest the young people were already showing in using ICTs, such as on-line gaming, searching for music and social networking. The very first participatory video project produced by the community had many positive outcomes. Elders heard the youth using traditional language, referring to plants of cultural significance and explaining their traditional uses.

A second video, filmed and edited entirely by four Ngalia boys aged 9 to 13, beat hundreds of international entries and was runner up in the Lonely Planet Less than 3 competition, a worldwide travel video competition. The video, entitled ‘Pupinmaru’, was posted on several external web sites which created a broader interest in the Ngalia’s activities. An extended version of the video provided the community with a marketable product to sell at community events.

The video project proved to be successful as a method of archiving cultural knowledge, demonstrating the significance of the culture and generating awareness of Ngalia activities. The work also managed to involve the young people, who were previously unable to contribute to community development, and proved that the youth really could learn traditional cultural activities from the elders.


In 2007, the Ngalia extended their communications facilities by connecting the community cultural centre to a wireless network. A local mining company donated ten computers and a range of community web sites were interlinked to provide more opportunity for sharing community news via blogs, posting videos, documenting Aboriginal current affairs, and engaging in e-commerce.

Even social networking sites, such as Facebook, have proved invaluable as members of the community created an advocacy-related group around the Ngalia movement, called Indigenous Land Justice: Ngalia Foundation Appeal. The group has attracted over 100 external members, many of whom are from international indigenous groups from similar social, environmental and economic backgrounds and facing similar development challenges.
In addition, the community set up VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services, such as Skype, to provide a cost effective way of communicating between the often large geographical distances that separate many community members.

Developments in ICT in the last few years, and in Web 2.0 in particular, represent the technological evolution the Ngalia have been waiting for. These advances mean increased and cost-effective access to resources such as open source software and Web 2.0 applications, where programs are run within a web browser without the need to install expensive software. These platforms not only increase the attraction for young people but provide tangible benefits too as the youth can now directly link and contribute to the greater community initiative.
Next on the agenda is the establishment of a community institute, based on traditional knowledge, to provide community members who have not yet been involved in the project with a means to re-connect with the culture and learn new skills that are so often required in contemporary Australia. The community elders want to incorporate the new XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child initiative into this programme. With the kind of support these new computers would provide, an initiative such as the community institute could really point the way forward and provide a real focus for the future development hopes of the Ngalia people.
Guy Singleton is a PhD student and research assistant at the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre and the Muresk Institute, Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia.

Related links

Walkatjurra Cultural Centre
Walkatjurra is a non-profit Aboriginal Cultural Centre based in Leonora, Western Australia.

Ngalia Foundation Appeal
The Ngalia Foundation provides an opportunity for indigenous Australians to participate in the development of livelihoods that enhance cultural heritage and environmental values within the arid region of the North Eastern Goldfields, in outback Western Australia.

Marnta.TV is an indigenous Australian showcase of arts, culture and Awareness to increase understanding of Australian Aboriginal Culture throughout the World.

One Laptop Per Child
The OLPC hopes to stimulate local grassroots initiatives designed to enhance and sustain the effectiveness of laptops as learning tools for children living in lesser-developed countries.

< than 3
The Lonely Planet Less than 3 competition awarded prizes for travel videos of less than three minutes.

Lonely Planet TV
Due to the popularity of the <3 competition, Lonely Planet has launched a new travel video channel.

02 April 2008

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